Move Fast - but don't Break Things
Safety has traditionally evolved over time through experience. What does the development of commercial drones tell us about the tensions between this process and rapid innovation?
I’m back again after the Spring break, with a few thoughts on safe innovation.
Balancing innovation with safety
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s now-famous motto: ‘Move fast and brake things’ has become the mantra of the innovation age. But this sentiment does not fit easily in any domain where there is scope for accidents and human tragedy. It is this tension that has driven the concept of the Precautionary Principle which emphasises caution and review before leaping into new innovations. Where technology and safety converge, systems, behaviours and cultures need to evolve in a controlled way. Sectors like rail and aviation have built upon many decades of experience and the tragedies of the past to create standards and ways of working that are proven to be safe. So how then do you innovate safely in an entirely new arena? An arena without this history and the codified good safety practice that goes with it? The development of drone technology provides an indication of some of the challenges.
Commerical drone use
Drones (or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) were originally developed for military use, but have now evolved to be ubiquitous. As the technology has become cheaper and more reliable its application is spreading to commercial uses. The development of ‘cargo drones’ really became a matter of public debate in 2013 when Jeff Bezos announced that Amazon was seeking to implement the delivery of small packages right to your house, by drone within 5 years. Nearly ten years later this still hasn’t happened. So why not?
Amazon’s drone testing strategy
A recent Bloomberg investigation based on internal documents, government reports and interviews with employees cites safety concerns as one of the reasons for the delay. Amazon Prime Air’s strategy to climb the safety maturity curve has been to learn in secret - undertaking test flights at its dedicated, closed site in Pendleton, Oregon. The company said in a statement to ‘Business Insider’:
Prime Air’s number one priority is safety…During these tests our drones fly over sterile ranges to ensure our employees are safe from potential injury.
This is a sensible strategy to gain experience and knowledge. However, there has reportedly been significant scope for learning. Bloomberg cited five crashes over the course of one four-month period.
In one, Amazon reportedly cleaned up the wreckage before the Federal Aviation Administration could investigate after a drone lost its propeller. Amazon disputes this account saying that it received instructions from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to move the drone after gathering the relevant details. In another incident a drone’s motor shut off as it switched flight path. The auotmated landing function and another safety function to stabilize the drone both failed. The FAA reported that:
Instead of a controlled descent to a safe landing, [the drone] dropped about 160 feet in an uncontrolled vertical fall…
An intense lithium battery fire on the drone quickly consumed it and on landing several acres of wheat stubble field were set on fire.
The world’s first passenger drone - the EHang 16 - was unveiled in prototype last year in China. There are arguably two safety challenges that will need to be addressed as the use of drones expands in this direction. The first is that it will inevitably become harder to keep people out of harm’s way. The other is that this controlled approach to safety learning may not build the transparancy and public confidence that are essential for any transport sector. Utimately, although technology continues to leap forward, safety culture tends to emerge slowly (or as a result of significant accidents).
The next issue
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Thanks for reading
All views are my own, and I do change my opinion as I learn new things. The image used on social media is "Drone" by Trotaparamos and is marked with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Please feel free to drop me an e-mail on firstname.lastname@example.org. My particular area of professional and research interest is practical risk and assurance of new technology. I’m always keen to engage on interesting projects in this area. See you again in two weeks time.